How to Attract Wild Birds to Your Garden, Patio or Balcony

Nothing adds pleasure to your outside spaces like birds. You can easily attract wild birds to your garden with the right food and feeders. And a bird bath is your secret weapon for attracting flocks of all kinds of wild birds.
How to attract wild birds to your garden

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Nothing adds pleasure to your outside spaces like birds. If want more feathery action but you’re not sure how to attract wild birds to your garden, read on.

It’s easy, especially in winter when natural food is unpredictable. With a good field guide in hand and a bit of strategy, it won’t be long before you’ve got plenty of feathered friends!

Table of Contents

Find Out Which Birds You Might See

It may seem obvious, but it’s important to understand that you’ll only be able to attract birds that actually live or pass through your area. Why? Because birds are highly specialized creatures that can usually live only in areas that suit their needs very closely. That’s why you won’t find parrots in the high north or puffins in the hot south – there’s just too big a mismatch between local conditions and those birds’ specific needs.

So the first thing you need to do is find out what kind of birds are available for backyard birding.

Bird Hunting On the Web

Wikipedia has an extensive browsable List of Birds by Region that can help you figure out what birds to look for in your area. Scroll down the List page to find your region, then click for an extensive list of birds that can be found in various habitats in your general area.

The List is organized by categories created by the American Ornithological Sociey and includes only birds with with self-maintaining wild native populations. Thus, if you live in the San Francisco area, you won’t find a page for the famous wild parrots (conures) of Telegraph Hill because those birds were originally imported from South America as not-very-successful pets and aren’t native to northern California.

The List of Birds by Region includes many different kinds of birds such as water and shore birds, predatory birds, owls, pigeons and more but for backyard birds you’ll want to look mainly for the “Passeriformes” or perching birds.

Each category, such as “Jays, crows, magpies and ravens” features a sample photo with brief general information, followed by a list of individual birds. Common names are followed by scientific name and an abbreviation for Conservation Status – “endangered” etc. (Abbreviations are explained at the top of the page.)

Click on the individual bird species and you’ll be taken to a page with more detailed information. Since Wikipedia is created entirely by volunteers, the amount of information may be quite varied. For some birds, like the black capped chickadee, you’ll find extensive notes on habitat, diet, breeding, sounds and even pecking order. For other birds, like Cassin’s vireo, you may find only a couple of paragraphs of basic information plus links to authoritative resources.

Attract wild birds to your garden with bird seed.
Project Feeder Watch detail page.

Project FeederWatch (PFW) is a winter survey of feeder birds operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. Although its main urpose is to count “birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other feeding areas in North America,” PFW has compiled a wonderful directory of detailed information on around 100 common feeder birds. I especially like specific information on the types of feed and feeders that will attract each bird.

You can very easily search the PFW directory by region, food type and feeder type. Selecting a general region will bring up a photo gallery of birds that winter in the area. Click on a photo of a bird and you’ll see images of the types of food it likes and the types of feeders it will use, along with a text link to detailed and reliable data on the bird’s natural history provided by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The sample image here shows the basic page for the Black-capped Chickadee. The text link for additional information is shown at the bottom left of the image.

Attract Wild Birds to Your Garden with a Bird Feeder

Now that you know who might show up, what kind of food should you serve? You can buy a sack of generic bird seed at your local grocery store and hope for the best OR you can take a strategic approach. You can also try a bit of both – get started with some generic seed to attract wild birds and branch out into items for tempting specific birds you’d like to encourage.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the best-loved backyard bird feeder seed is the high-energy black oil sunflower seed. In fact many birds will pick the tasty sunflower seeds out of a typical seed mix and flick the rest of it out of the bird feeder!

If you want to attract ground feeding birds like spotted towhees, juncos, house finches, buntings, thrushes and more, inexpensive millet or white proso millet is a good bet. Avoid seed mixes heavy on red millet if you want to attract wild birds, because this is one seed they won’t eat.

If you love watching the antics of jays and crow, toss out a few shelled peanuts and watch as the circus rolls in.

Types of Bird Feeder

Certain birds LOVE nyjer seed

Because of their different feeding habits and preferred foods, a variety of bird feeders will help you attract many different kinds of wild birds.

Hummingbird feeders – glass or plastic tubes with ports on the bottom for hummingbirds (and some orioles, woodpeckers and warblers) to sip liquid “nectar” from.

Hopper feeders – these may be house shaped and can be made of either wood or plastic. They usually have clear sides and large openings that allow seed to flow out the bottom onto a small tray. Hopper feeders should be cleaned and sanitized monthly and checked often to ensure the contents are still unspoiled. Chickadees, finches, jays, titmice, buntings, cardinals and grackles like hopper-type feeders. Squirrels too.

Tube feeders – these are, you guessed it, hanging tubes that offer seeds through feeding ports or the openings in a mesh. Port type feeders usually have small perches for the birds to sit on while feeding. Mesh or screen feeders are usually used for nyjer (“thistle”) seeds which are very small, thin black seeds that many birds, especially finches and pine siskins, go crazy for!

Large tube feeders will attract wild birds such as sparrows, goldfinches, titmice, chickadees, bushtits, wrens, redpolls, starlings, warblers and gray cardinal-like birds called “Pyrrhuloxia”.

Trays and platforms – these are flat, open surfaces, sometimes roofed, with perhaps a rim for birds to stand on. They attract all kinds of birds but also expose the feed to the elements, making spoilage easier. The best platform feeders have mesh bottoms to let water and bird droppings fall through. In addition to robins, crows, chickadees, blue jays, thrushes, towhees, sparrows, starlings and blackbirds, this type of feeder may also attract squirrels, deer and other wildlife.

Hairy woodpecker on suet feeder by Mike's Birds on Flickr
Hairy woodpecker on suet feeder By Mike’s Birds [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Suet feeders – “suet” bird food is usually a cake of rendered fat mixed with various seeds and grains. The cake is placed in a wire cage so birds can reach into the enclosure to eat. Suet attracts wrens, chickadees, titmice, jays, nuthatches, jays, woodpeckers and starlings. To discourage starlings,choose a bird feeder type that only birds that can feed upside down can access.

Window feeders – these are small plastic cups you can attach to window glass and platform feeders that hook onto window frames. They will attract smaller birds such as sparrows, chickadees and titmice. Place them somewhere you can easily reach, as these should be cleaned every day. (Birds usually have to eat while standing on the seeds and may poop on the food.)

Splish Splash, Birds Love Takin’ a (Bird) Bath!

For an extra warm welcome to local birds add a bird bath to your garden. Not only does a bird bath provide clean water for drinking, something about bathing seems to soothe aggression and allow for otherwise competitive birds to have a good splash before settling in for the night, even in winter.

Western Bluebird bathing
By Mike’s Birds from Riverside, CA, US [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A bird bath can be anything from a simple puddle to an elaborate pond and waterfall setup, but the shallow-bowl-on-a-pedestal type is widely available and affordable at most home and garden centers.

Whatever type you choose, make it no more than a couple of inches deep and add some moving water if you can – a drip, fountain or spray. Birds can’t resist moving water and the movement helps keep water from freezing when it’s cold outside. Clean it every few days and if possible, heat it in winter.

Here’s an amazing video that shows just how attractive a birdbath can be. As you may know, hummingbirds are usually terrible squabblers, but in this jaw-dropping video all that’s missing is a few frozen cocktails!

Savor Your Success

Provide a bird bath, bird feeder and the right kind of food and you’ll attract wild birds to your garden and other outdoor spaces in no time.

Don’t despair if it doesn’t happen right away though. Birds are wary and need to feel safe before getting close. It may take a few weeks, but soon you’ll have a private airshow right outside your windows, now that you know how to attract wild birds to your back yard!

What have you done to attract wild birds? Share your best tips in the comments below.

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  1. Hello Joy!
    What a wonderful and mind easing article to read!
    Personally I have played around with bird feeders on my property on and off for years. I never got to the depth of identifying the birds, I just loved watching them. I did hang a few hummingbird feeders around also. I like to think of myself as a hummingbird at times, jumping from one idea to the next, topic to topic, lol.

    One thing I had to be careful of is during the spring time, wherever I hung a bird feeder, I would get a very large variety of vegetables and flowers growing under the feeder, hehehe!

    Thank you for the smile!

  2. Birds are always around the yard and I cannot get one fig off my tree, as soon as one turns color the birds are there before me; the birds will also visit when you are having lunch on the balcony, they are not afraid to dip into the sugar bowl. I love to see them when I am in my workworshop.

    Sadly the hummingbirds has disappeared after hurricane Irma, this is not the first time they have disappeared after a hurricane.

    The birds feed from my yard.

    • Thanks for your comments Jeff. Doesn’t sound like you have any problem attracting birds! Sorry about your fig tree πŸ™ – I’d be disappointed too.

  3. Hey Joy,
    Would I say I’m a bird lover? Not really, however, I do enjoy watching them, & we’ve been adopted by a juvenile Magpie. He arrived here nearly 12 months ago, and within a day or so was game enough to come down from his far away perch to our pool fence.
    I had a little food in my hand and offered it to him, to my surprise he came right up to me and took the food from my hand. Now, he arrives morning and early evening for his food.
    If for any reason we’re tardy getting it together he’ll scrape and hit his beak on the decking around our back door.

    It’s a ritual now; we chat to him as we move to the back area of the house, he clips along the decking behind us, not at unlike a puppy might. These are very intelligent birds.

    The words out now amongst the Magpie fraternity…”these guys are a soft touch for food”…hence we’re now feeding 3 or 4 Maggies at a time. Next time they’re here I’ll take pic to proove the case.

    Not bad for a non lover of birds hey? πŸ™‚

  4. Hi Joy,
    I love the sound of birds singing in the morning and especially when we go to the country side, reading this makes me remember when I was a child and would hear the birds singing and chirping in the morning.

  5. Great tips in this article! Seeing and listing to the birds make me feel happy.

  6. I absolutely love birds. I think I inherited this from my mother πŸ™‚ She has a hummingbird feeder on the balcony, very much like the one you described. Its unique shape keeps other birds away (they can’t properly feed from it), so she gets the very birds she is trying to attract this way. I must admit… it’s quite a show! Great article. We may try a bird bath next. I didn’t think of that before.

    • Thanks Gregory! If you do try a bird bath, be sure to use a non-brittle one in winter. Ceramic and concrete basins can crack if the weather gets cold enough, and there goes your investment!

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